Twitter, it is often said, is a meritocracy. There’s no feigning the raw data of RTs and ☆s (except when there is). It’s a conservative’s utopia of Horatio Alger-style bootstrapping and elbow-grease achievement, whereby one’s hard work in the content mines is inevitably, and justly, rewarded with a gradually increasing market share of followers. But much like in the real world, once you’ve accumulated enough capital, you no longer have to work for it anymore, and you simply watch the dividends of your portfolio expand. You end up with a situation where your achievements of the past continue to appreciate in value long after you’ve contributed anything meaningful to the marketplace. In other words, the Twitter career of comedian Michael Ian Black.
Black, whose work I’ve long been a fan of, and who’s an undoubtedly talented comedian, is, by my strictly jealous and petty estimation as an unfamous person who’s MAD, the least funny person on Twitter (adjusted for influence inflation: 1.8m followers) and he has been for a long time. Consider this recent gem, if you will, RT’d nearly 200 times in the hour or so it’s been up.
What is the statute of limitations for enjoying the Santana/Rob Thomas song “Smooth”?
— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) January 22, 2013
That’s a 14-year-old-reference, in case you’d lost track. I think a better question here, and for much of what passes for humor on Twitter in general, would be “What is the statute of limitations on randomly mentioning a pop culture thing we’ve all heard of and expecting the mere mention of it to do the heavy lifting of a hypothetical joke?”
This sort of thing is one of the most common modes of humor on Twitter—l’esprit de l’escalier, but with a decades-long pop culture window to land the punchline. It’s the Goat Boy model, which, hey remember Goat Boy from SNL, hahah. That was a funny show. Someone RT that 500 times.
Consider this winner, for example, with its 1082 RTs: “People forget that Avril and Chad Kroeger are both Canadian so they HAVE to get married. It’s also why Justin Bieber is going to marry Rush.” What’s the joke there? That four celebrities we all know about exist. Is the joke “Canada”? Is that a great joke?
Let’s see you do better, you might say, and that’s a good point: everyone who ever criticizes anything should obviously be better at it than the famous person they’re talking about—that’s internet law. As Black once tweeted: “People who claim to be their own harshest critic have never been on the internet.” (1054 RTs).
Why don’t you stop following him? you might also ask. Another good point. I do not, actually, but so many of those hundreds of thousands of followers end up RTing these nuggets of comedy gold it’s like I’m ghost-riding his, and many other “funniest people on Twitter” streams.
Black is regularly mentioned on those lists, like this one from Rolling Stone last year, who, okay, their idea of funny for many years was PJ O’Rourke, so not sure they’re exactly qualified to ever talk about comedy again, but still.
Obviously none of this matters. I’m reminded of something Vonnegut, an immensely funny man who would’ve been horrible on Twitter, once said about critics: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.” Imagine how much less meaningful it is to rail against the tyranny of a tweet? And yes, I know people tweet stupid things all the time that get unjustly fawned over (see the feed of literally any music celebrity for evidence) but comedy is supposed to be serious, and the idea of sympathy laughter for things we did in the past is as offensive to me as someone who does see Twitter as an accurate barometer of merit. Thankfully I don’t have that many followers myself, which is great for my well-maintained sense of self-hatred.
It’s what I was talking about in this piece, “In Praise of the H8er,” when I said “The only reason I tune in to Buzzfeed may be to rip it apart, but that’s not simply because it’s bad, it’s because it’s both so bad and so popular, and its success in the near-zero-sum game of page views democratizes mediocrity.” I say unfunny things all the time. We all do. But we’re not resoundingly praised for it. For regular people online our joke turds disappear into the unfunny abyss from whence they came with a whimper, and rightfully so. I’ve got like twelve stinkers in a row up on my feed right now that I’m going to keep up there like a scarlet letter on my internet tits. Remember when Demi Moore was in that movie The Scarlet Letter? Haha. Everything about Demi Moore.
I’m sure Black will end up being just fine despite a nobody blogger saying he’s not funny. I don’t even think I’m writing this to him, I’m writing it to the rest of you. As Paul F. Tompkins wrote in Variety last year regarding Steven Tyler, another horribly unfunny human being, and his antics on American Idol, “if you find this guy’s shtick entertaining, YOU ARE NOT TRYING HARD ENOUGH. Yes, I am saying it goes beyond personal taste and it is incumbent upon you to find better things funny. I don’t know how you will do this.”
I don’t either. I just wish the things that we all agreed to think were good were better than they were. I suppose there’s nothing funny about that, either.